The True DAO Organization; More Equality, Fairness, & Productivity

Why we need decentralization

Achievement of centralized economy Traditionally, hierarchical management has offered a means of directing human activity. Entities as diverse as governments, religious institutions and corporations use centralized methods to govern resources, territories and communities. Utilizing innovations such as joint-stock companies, centralized organizations have become some of the most powerful and economically valuable enterprises ever created.

Cost of centralization of power

Yet centralization is not without its costs. With a small minority in charge, centralized entities tend to make decisions opaquely and consolidate power at the top. Moreover, centralized organizations may overemphasize narrow goals, like maximizing shareholder profits, at the expense of broader considerations such as contributing to efforts to address the climate crisis.

Concentration of wealth

Not only has the capitalist system produced centralization of power but also centralization of ownership and wealth. As of mid 2022, the world has almost 2,700 billionaires. These represent less than 0.0001 percent of the population but they have more wealth than 2/3 of the entire global population. This is an extreme inequality that the world has never seen before. Furthermore, the middle class is being wiped out as more and more resources are going to the super wealthy.

The Great Resignation

Workers are beginning to realize that working for centralized structures without being in power, they are getting a bad deal.

This has been one of the causes of what has been termed the Great Resignation. The Great Resignation, also known as the Big Quit, is an ongoing economic trend in which employees have voluntarily resigned from their jobs en masse, beginning in early 2021 in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

There are two major reasons: First, workers have realized that they are much more comfortable making decisions by themselves, rather than having everything dictated to them by the organization. Second, workers have realized that they are creating a great value for the companies but only getting a small part of it. In other words people have seen that they do not have much share in control nor in financial rewards. Increasingly, they want to have part of the power and part of the financial reward.

Concentration of control in startups

Some of the workers that quit their corporate jobs are interested in joining startups. Their dream is to get more decision-making power, be less micromanaged, have more flexibility and participate in the financial success. Unfortunately, these workers will mostly be disappointed.

Startups offer very little decentralization, rather, there is a significant concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals, called the founders. The founders typically make the important decisions and the workers only implement the founders’ vision. In fact, startups concentrate power more highly than corporations. Corporates often split into smaller teams that get their autonomy, while startups give all the control to the founders.

Concentration of financial rewards in startups

In addition to concentrated control, a disproportionate amount of the financial rewards also goes to the founders.

Even though the founders often provide the initial vision and secure funding, most of the implementation required for startup success is done by hired people. So it is a frequent point of team member frustration that they are pivotal to startup success, but receive little financial benefit besides salary, while founders do relatively little execution but receive the vast majority of shares, while also enjoying higher salaries than other employees.

This unfairness was recently illustrated by the founders of WeWork. The founder of WeWork recruited thousands of workers using the capital of investors, however, none of these workers received anywhere near the salary that the founders paid themselves. In addition, workers received part of their salary in stock options. When the company stock price fell, these stock options were worth nothing. Nonetheless, the founders were able to sell part of their shares for over half a billion USD.

The problem of centralization

It is clear that while capitalism, and more particularly the centralization of power, has created significant technological change and wealth, it has also led to an unfair distribution of wealth and power. In order to have more people participate in the decision making and the financial rewards, we need to decentralize ownership. This will also lead to a society that is more equitable, fair and just, as well as more productive.

Potential solutions to the problem of centralization

The problem of centralization of power and wealth is not new. It has been part of humanity for thousands of years. However, technological advances in the 18th and 19th centuries exacerbated the problem. And since the 1960s, the problem of inequality has become more and more pressing.

Over the last 150 years, several remedies to the centralization of power and wealth have been proposed.

Marxist Socialism

Karl Marx observed at the beginning of industrialization in 1860 that a handful of investors, founders, and managers of the newly established factories became extremely wealthy and powerful while all the workers that represented the vast majority of people had no power and were getting miserable wages.

In the time of Marx, adult workers and even children would often need to work more than 10 hours a day in factories and mines generating a huge profit for the owners but getting very little compensation.

For us, there is no valid definition of socialism other than the abolition of the exploitation of one human being by another” – Ernesto “Che” Guevara

To solve this problem, Marx proposed a workplace democracy. Every worker should be the owner of the factory. That way every owner would have a say in the direction of the company as well as get part of the generated profit.

Worker coop movement

Worker cooperatives emerged shortly after Karl Marx published his theories on worker organization. In worker cooperatives, the workers own the company, each worker has voting rights, and decisions are made unanimously.

Both Marxist socialism and worker cooperatives propose a solution to worker ownership, but both have problems.

Problems of Marxist socialism and worker coops When our team looked at solutions to make every member engaged, to distribute power among team members, and to distribute financial rewards fairly, we studied earlier models including Marxist socialism and worker coop movement in detail. However, due to their many problems we soon realized we needed a better model.

One worker, one vote

In traditional worker coops, every worker gets one vote. That system might work if all workers are similar and all work similar hours. However, in our startup, we have people that are still studying as well as people that have over 20 years’ experience. We have people that work one hour per week and people that work full time. We have people that have worked from the inception and people that only recently joined the company.

How fair would it be if a worker that has 20 years’ experience, has worked in the company for many years, and works full time gets the same voting right as a worker that is still a student and is working only one hour per week? Not very fair.

Voting rights between different people should depend on their commitment and contribution to the company.

Unanimous decision making

Also, in worker coops, the general rule is that decisions are made by unanimity. That means in order for any change to happen, every worker has to agree to the change. That kind of decision-making process is very slow and does not permit making changes quickly, especially if the changes might hurt some of the workers.

But for a young company to become successful, it has to adapt quickly to its environment. Thus our team needed a fast decision-making process, and unanimity was not viable.

Assumption of profit

Karl Marx assumed that all factories are making profit that gets distributed to the capitalists and owners. Therefore, he advised that profit be redistributed to the workers. However, in most young companies, there is no profit to be distributed. Instead, young companies often make losses and therefore need capital from their founders or investors.

If in a coop the workers get all of the profit distributed to themselves, then they should also be required to invest funds when they are making losses. But many workers might not be able to do so, and so the company would go bankrupt or would need an investor, and the investor would require part of the profit. Also, different people have different dispositions to risk. Many workers would prefer to receive a stable salary rather than the opportunity to become wealthy, if the wealthy option also creates the risk of losing money or making less salary.

For these reasons, our structure incentivizes people (both founders and investors) to contribute money to the company to pay for the losses. Consequently, these contributors should have the right to get their money back before others get a share of the profit.

Equitable compensation

Worker coops often pay every worker the same rate or at least rates that do not differ much. That means that workers that would be paid little in other companies are able to make a comparatively high hourly rate, while highly-skilled people get a comparatively low rate. This brings the problem of attracting mainly low achievers, and not attracting enough high achievers.

A young company that if it wants to service a market must attract the best talent. That requires high compensation for top talent, creating a considerable difference between high and low achievers, otherwise, the company will attract low achievers and go bankrupt.

For all of the above reasons it is not possible to use the Marxist Socialist nor the worker cooperative model. So our organization had to devise our own model to bring decentralization of decision-making and ownership, while also setting the right incentives.

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO)

The promise of DAO

In 2018 we learned about an organizational form called the DAO, standing for decentralized autonomous organization (DAO).

  • Decentralized means that decisions are made decentrally. Autonomous means that the organization is not dependent on any one individual but operates independently of any one person.
  • The promise of the DAO organization model is that decisions and ownership are distributed among a large community instead of being centralized within a small group of individuals. We were excited about this model and thought it was the solution to our search for more decentralization, more fairness, more involvement of everyone, more flexibility and better cooperation among our members.

However, we soon discovered that the reality of DAOs in practice was quite different.

The current DAO reality

In practice, startups use the DAO model to raise money but are not organized decentrally. By calling themselves DAO, startups raise funds from investors, who receive tokens in exchange. These tokens enable investors to make and vote on proposals. Tokens which give voting rights are not for workers but only for investors, and the tokens only give rights to vote on very limited proposals.

Some current DAOs use voting by tokens to make important decisions. But these kinds of DAOs generally only have a single purpose, like purchasing a constitution. And some DAOs are re-investing the money into other crypto projects. Both buying a constitution and investing in companies are very rudimentary operations in which voting by investors could make sense.

But what about more complex companies, like IT startups producing products, with people working in development, design, marketing, finance etc? Can this be organized by the DAO model in which only investors get to make decisions? No. For a real startup or any functional company it is important that people who are involved in the day-to-day operations have the majority of decision-making power.

Many current companies that describe themselves as DAOs are only organized as such in terms of their relationship with investors: investors have the right to participate in some decisions.

However, internally these DAOs can operate in an even more centralized way than traditional startups. Founders may control the funds as well as all decisions. Most importantly the founders have complete freedom to pay themselves high salaries while paying everyone else the least possible amount.

Also, all of the shares of the company after raising money via a token offering stay with the founders. So the founders are the only people that have real decision making power and all the financial rewards stay with the founders.

This is not the kind of decentralization of ownership, power and financial rewards that we are aiming for.

True DAO

While the objectives of the DAO concept are great, the current implementation is generally not what a DAO purports to be. But that does not mean our objectives cannot be achieved with a DAO that is organized the way a decentralized, autonomous organization should be. We call it a True DAO.

In building a True DAO, our objectives are:

  • To create an organization that is fair to everyone: every team member, founder, advisor and investor
  • To have a workplace democracy
  • To have more engagement from the whole team
  • To offer the maximum freedom to every team member
  • To take account of every team member’s situation, offering more stability and more cash to those who need it, and more ownership to those with less need for cash and financial compensation
  • To create a structure that has the right incentives for everyone involved
  • To achieve all of this in an agile way with fast decision making
  • To create a structure in which external investors want to invest

Our DAO manifesto

We, the contributors to the DAO, do not want to be organized in a purely capitalistic and centralized way, whereby a single founder, boss or employer controls the organization and in exchange for a salary is able to reap all the profit for themselves. This pure capitalistic organization leads to the exploitation of team members, who might get a salary but compared to the value they are creating for the capitalist are underpaid and do not have the freedom to decide the way they work. Instead, the contributors want to be organized as a true DAO: all team members control their work and get the surplus from the success of the organization.

In concrete terms, that means:

  • Every team member has the SAME rights, defined in this agreement.
  • Every team member co-owns the organization.
  • Every team member is involved in the decision making.
  • Every team member has maximum freedom:Decides where to work
  • Decides how much to work
  • Decides when to work
  • Distribution of Ownership
  • Ownership determines voting rights and future share in profits and proceeds from a sale or the IPO of the company.
  • Every team member gets ownership. The share of ownership depends on how much contribution has been given compared to the total contribution.
  • Explanation of the Ownership Model

A traditional startup is organized as follows:

The two main founders hold around 85% of the shares and only the remaining 15% are distributed among the less important team members. It might be that one of the minor team members in terms of shares turns out to be most important to the company but still does not get more shares, as they were not the one that came up with the original idea of the startup.

Traditional startups thus have a clear distinction between founders on the one hand and other team members (co-founders, freelancers, or employees) on the other.

We believe there is no clear separation between founders and team members working for shares or at least partly for shares.

The above illustrates that in our company, the distinction between founders and normal freelancers is on a continuum, where the more the person works and the less remuneration the person receives in cash, the more the person is like a founder and the more the person gets in ownership.

On the other hand, people who contribute only a few hours per month, and receive a normal payment in cash contribute very little and thus are more of normal freelancers or part-time employees and less of founders.

This leads to the following share distribution, which is much more equal:

Moreover, the big difference between our model and the traditional model is that every person participating in the company has the same agreement (except for differences in the hourly rate, as discussed below), and therefore everyone is able to get more shares by contributing more. In fact, everyone can become the largest equity holder simply by contributing more than anyone else.

Principles of the true DAO

Decision making by the whole founding community One of the most fundamental principles is that everyone who contributes to the success of the company, be it by investing money or by investing work, should have the power to participate in important decisions

Financial rewards distributed to the whole founding community

Just like control, financial rewards should also be distributed to all people that contributed to the success.

Ownership depends on contribution

Both voting rights and financial rights depend on ownership. The ownership should be held by everyone. However, there are some people who contribute a lot and others who contribute only a little. For example, there will be some team members that work 70 hours per week, receiving no cash and contributing money, while other team members work only a few hours and in addition receive cash. The members who contribute the most should also get the most ownership.

Everybody gets the same deal

Everybody who is somehow contributing to the success of the company should get the same deal.

This is very different from traditional companies, where the founders often only come up with the idea and then acquire funding. Once they get money from investors, they let others work to implement their idea. The workers do the bulk of the work, but only get a low salary while the founders pay themselves a high salary and in the future get 100% of the sale value.

At the True DAO, we want everyone to get the same deal no matter when they join the organization. So even if they join when the company is already one year old, they could become the biggest owner of the company if they make the biggest contribution to the company.

Small differences in hourly rates

There is one caveat to the fact that every team member gets that same contract. There need to be some differences in the hourly rates. People with high experience and valuable skills need to get more remuneration for every hour of work.

Is that fair?

We think it is! Some team members spend many years of their lives to build their skills. It would not be fair if they got the same hourly wage as, for example, a newly graduated intern.

Also, if everyone worked for the same rate, we would only attract workers without highly marketable skills.

Highly skilled people would not have an incentive to work in the organization, as they wouldn’t want to receive the same rate as less skilled members.

Maximum freedom for every team member

We want maximum freedom for everyone in the organization. That means every team members gets:

  • The freedom to choose what to contribute – money or work.
  • The freedom to decide how much work they put in.
  • The freedom to select their work hours and their workplace.
  • The freedom to select how they are compensated: in cash or in shares, or a combination of the two.

Free to choose compensation

There is one caveat to being free to choose the compensation mix of cash and shares. If the company does not have enough money to pay everyone 100% in cash, it is not feasible to allow everyone to take 100% in cash.

Also, if a team member asked for 100% cash compensation, then in fact the member would not bring any contribution. Yes, they would contribute their work, but this work would have already been compensated 100% in cash.

For that reason, we can only allow compensation of up to 90% in cash.

Also, in order to incentivize every team member to choose shares rather than cash, we apply a sub-1 factor to the cash to be taken out, so it becomes less, and we apply a factor higher than 1 to the shares to be taken out, so they become proportionally more valuable than cash.

Decision-making power to those with the most expertise

Decision making power should go to those people that are able to make the best decisions.

So decisions are only up for vote in case they affect the whole company. The vast majority of decisions are taken by the person directly involved with the decision at hand. Furthermore, if a company-wide vote is held for decisions that are related to someone’s area of expertise, that person gets their voting power multiplied by 3.

General voting power is not only dependent on the number of shares held; rather, it is the average of the amount of shares held and the amount of responsibility held. We recognize that a person could have a lot of responsibility but due to the fact that they just started working with the organization, their past contribution and therefore the amount of their ownership is still limited. Nonetheless, the high level of responsibility in general means that the person would have a high level of expertise and high stakes in the company too.

Speed of decision making

For a startup to be successful, it has to make decisions quickly. However, making decisions by involving all team members from the whole company is often slow and leads to bottle necks.

For that reason, we have to provide additional measures for fast decision making.

First, as mentioned above, the whole company makes decisions only in rare cases. In general, decisions are made by each individual confronted with a certain decision in their area. Only when a decision affects many areas or the whole company do we vote as a company.

Also, we use voting shortcuts. A shortcut means that before involving all team members, we have a vote among the core team members: those with the highest amount of responsibility. These team members have more than 50% of the voting rights, so if these members come to a decision, we do not have to involve more team members.

Avoiding centralization

Even with the objective of decentralization and with the governance set up as described above, it is easily possible to become too centralized. For example, imagine one founder with a high hourly rate that works full time and does not take any cash compensation. If the other founders are working part time, at a lower hourly rate or are requesting a high cash compensation, the net contribution of the single founder could easily become over 50%.

That means this founder could change the governance structure alone or with the help of one or two other founders.

To avoid this, we created a founder council. The founder council is an institution composed of three founders who each hold less than 15% of the shares in the company. The founder council gets elected not by the normal voting procedure, but by a special procedure in which each founder, even minor founders, have one single vote.

The founder council then is solely responsible for dealing with founder grievances, resolving founder conflict and making proposals related to team issues. It also gets 33% of all the voting rights, so to avoid that a single founder has too much voting power.

The above are the foundational principles of the True DAO. As we are gaining more experience, the governance protocol is constantly improving and becoming more detailed.

Legality of the true DAO

Recently, there have been calls all over the world for regulation of the DAO. In fact, the state of Wyoming recently passed legislation to establish a DAO in the form of an LLC. We do not see why specialized legislation is required. In fact, we have a legal form of Delaware C-Corp but are still organized as a DAO. This is possible as the legal form is important for the relationship to the outside world, such as the government, contractual partners or public investors. But for the inside relations between contributors to the company, we are able to freely choose how to manage ourselves.

How does it work in practice?

Our core principle is that ownership, and thereby financial and control rights, depend on contribution to the company. But contributions are made daily and thus, the shareholding would vary daily. For that reason the shares are not held as actual legal shares but as what we call ownership shares. Ownership shares are a contractual right to receive the shares and their associated benefits, both financial and control-related, in the future. This is done by a continuous SAFE agreement. SAFE stands for Simple Agreement for Future Equity. Normally, a SAFE is given to investors and is valid until the company raises Series A funding. In our case every founder holds a SAFE, a contractual right to get their ownership shares and all the benefits of being an owner when the company gets sold or IPO-ed.

It provides the same benefits as legal ownership in the book, but it avoids the prohibitive legal costs of having to change ownership every time ownership changes, which in our case literally happens daily.

This model has worked so well that we believe there is no need for specialized legislation for DAOs. Delaware C-Corps, using our true DAO model, can become DAOs without having specialized legislation.

The promise of the True DAO

We started developing our DAO structure 16 years ago, although at the time we did not call it DAO. The model became more and more mature over time as we built into it our learnings from using it in different startups.

We now believe that, even though it is not perfect, the True DAO is the best model to organize companies, especially startups with the aim of:

  • fairness
  • transparency
  • right incentives
  • productivity

The model works particularly well in situations where many founders come together and want to start a company working remotely and part time.

We have used the model over the last year for this particular circumstance and have been able to create a founding team that is very productive and satisfied with the company environment.